At a young age, many of us are taught that telling a lie is absolutely bad. Yet as we grow up, we slowly become exposed to small, “white” lies — those told to keep us from becoming upset or sad. Even as we transition into adulthood, well-meaning lies are often told to shield a person from criticism or added hardship. But can we ever be sure telling a lie is the right thing to do?
Why We Tell White Lies
As a parent, using white lies to help prevent a child from feeling upset is a common practice, and according to research, is socially acceptable across many cultures. A parent, for instance, may tell small lies to keep a child from worrying about a missing stuffed animal, or calm their fear of getting a shot at the doctor’s office. Often, this act is perceived as being compassionate and is considered a “prosocial lie,” which entails a person lying to prevent harm to another individual.
Even into adulthood, those “smaller” lies often continue. Many adults may feel they are put in situations where lying is the only ethical option. If a person asks you how they look on their wedding day, for instance, there is only one acceptable answer, despite what your honest opinion may be. In a work setting, the same may be true when it comes to interactions with your boss or in situations where you feel the need to prevent someone’s embarrassment or discomfort when receiving criticism.
The question then becomes whether this type of lie is less harmful than just being honest from the start.
Is Lying Ever Undeniably Bad?
If every lie told could prevent harm to another person, without any ill-effects, it would make the answer to this question more clear. But in reality, falsely telling someone they did a fantastic job when they did not, or letting someone believe they are a contender for a promotion, when they are not, can result in more harm than good.
This type of lie — a paternalistic lie — requires the deceiver to make assumptions about whether the lie is in the best interest of the person receiving it. This results in strong resentment from deceived parties, and in many cases, backfires.
To help encourage more honesty in your professional and personal life and avoid the need to lie, make sure you are creating settings where you feel comfortable telling the truth (and are helping others feel they can do so as well). By being honest as much as possible you can create conditions where those around you feel heard and believed. This will help to stop deception with positive intent.
How to Decide When to Lie
While some may choose to stick with honesty as the best and only policy, if you do choose to tell a lie or skew the truth in some way, consider the following two factors: The size and intention of the lie — are your reason prosocial, paternalistic, or are they purely deceptive and malicious — and the potential repercussions if you are caught. While it may be the best policy, as we’ve seen, the truth is not the only policy. Some lies are necessary and even justified.
Even if the lie seems harmless at the surface, it’s important to weigh these considerations before deciding if it is better left unsaid. And remember, if you’re honest, it’s easier to keep your story straight and won’t have any negative impact on your mental health (like feeling guilty about your deceit).